No one knows how long ago someone came up with the idea of filling an animal’s skin with air and attaching pipes to make music. The Persians, Indians, Greeks and Romans all had bagpipes so long ago that we count their years backwards. A first century (A.D.) Roman historian noted that the Emperor Nero knew ‘how to play the pipe with his mouth and the bag thrust under his arm’. Bagpipes have always been made in many shapes and sizes, either blown with the mouth or pumped with the elbow, and they are still a staple part of European traditional (‘folk’) music today.
There are three common elements to all bagpipes:
- An air bag made of sheep or goat skin.
- The chanter with holes to create different notes with the fingers. The chanter has seven finger holes and a thumb hole, and has a usual range of nine notes, an octave plus one. (More ‘modern’ bagpipes – relatively speaking – such as Northumbrian and uillean or Irish pipes have complicated chanters with many keys which add to the range of available notes.)
- The drone, playing a single, long note underneath the tune to give that distinctive bagpipe sound.
Both the chanter and the drone make their sounds by having the air blow through reeds. Somewhere between 1350–1450, just as the mediaeval was giving way to the renaissance, bagpipes began typically to have two drones playing notes a fifth apart. By 1550, three drones were common.
During the middle ages and the renaissance, bagpipes were played for dances, marches and other outdoor occasions for and by all classes of people. Some of the best known period images of bagpipers are from the fabulous paintings of Pieter Bruegel the Elder (c.1525–1569), renaissance ‘peasant painter’ of the Netherlands. But bagpipes were by no means only a ‘lower class’ instrument: mediaeval Kings Edward II (ruled 1307–27) and Edward III (ruled 1327–77) had pipers at court, and renaissance King Henry VIII (ruled 1509–47) had an extensive collection of musical instruments, including “wone with pipes of ivorie and a bagge covered with purple vellat.”
Bagpipes playing Traubentritt, anon., Germany, early 16th century